A guide to grading grunts;School Diary

24th April 1998 at 01:00


For the first time in many years, I have decided to take on some examination marking. Readers with particularly long memories might recall my first - and only - abortive attempt to become involved in such a process many moons ago, but I'm sure that the Scottish Qualifications Authority won't hold that against me; after all, the personnel will have changed since then. And I do feel that my lack of marking experience has been something of a drag on my career prospects.

Plus, of course, Gail (my wife, by marriage) has forcefully reminded me that we need "every penny we can get, Morris. An assistant principal teacher of guidance and a Primary 7 teacher don't hold much financial clout, and if we want a foreign holiday this year, then you'd better get your red pen out!" Hmmph. Foreign holiday, indeed. One thing which hasn't changed about exam marking since the last time I did it is the appalling level of remuneration. Having spent most of my Easter holidays ploughing a lonely furrow through a deadweight of folio materials - and subsequently checking the hourly rate for so doing - I'm moved to remark that the only leisure-time activity that my extra-curricular work looks likely to finance is a coach trip to Blackpool.


Ruth Lees put forward a revolutionary suggestion at this morning's meeting of the senior management team: she wants to have condom machines installed in the toilets. Apparently, this is all the rage in French schools but Mr Henderson (through whom the news was leaked to an astounded staffroom) reported that our depute head's proposal was met with a certain degree of incredulity by the rest of the senior management team.

"Mmm," he confirmed. "After her last initiative on storing booze for senior pupils at the Christmas dance, Mr Tod reckoned we could do without any more controversial policies like that."

"Well, anyway," scoffed Mr Pickup, "most of us are past that kind of thing, aren't we? I mean, I can see young Simpson there needing to top up supplies now and then, but I'm sure the local barber can usually see him right."

I blushed, as Jim Henderson patiently explained to Pickup that Ms Lees's suggestion had been for condom machines in the pupil toilets, rather than the staff ones. Pickup looked dumbfounded and, for once, was at a complete loss for words.


We've been moderated. This afternoon witnessed a visitation from Mr Webster of the SQA to ensure that our procedures are all present and correct for assessing pupil achievement in the talk strand of Standard grade English.

In my innocence, I had lined up a few star pupils for interview (not that we have that many at Greenfield Academy) to let the SQA be aware that Morris Simpson wouldn't be found wanting when it came to a full and frank appraisal of verbal communication proficiency. I needn't have bothered. Mr Webster had brought along a videotape instead, and some pre-printed blank assessment sheets with which he proceeded to give us a little test.

Frankly, I was appalled. So far as I could make out, the SQA seems prepared to allow candidates a glowing commendation amounting to a level 3 pass (or above) for the most basic of communicative activities. A brief personal biography and the ability to answer three consecutive questions in succession with an equal number of grammatically questionable responses would appear to mark the candidate as a master of Socratic disputation in the eyes of our chief awarding body. In the somewhat derisory attempts at interview that I witnessed on the television screen, it would appear to be a case of "one grunt, good; two grunts, better; four grunts - bloody marvellous."

And when it came to assessment of our own particular marking abilities, I'm afraid I was usually out of step with official policy. There were a number of screened discussions between teacher and pupil where we were asked to accord a descriptor level, and I have to confess that my grades usually fell short of the recommended award, although usually by a relatively minor amount.

However, my own particular Dunkirk arrived with the screening of a discussion between a pupil and teacher from the north-east of Scotland. Quite honestly, I couldn't understand a word of the pupil's contributions. Aside from the occasional "Fit like?" (which I did comprehend) and a triumphant assertion of his football team's chances for their next game ("aye, they'll win if they stick in, like.."), I was completely unable to follow the drift of the discussion. Accordingly, I awarded a Level 6. I knew this was taking a risk (at out markers' meeting for the folio submissions, we'd been warned against anything lower than a level 4 without due and serious cause), but I felt confident that this was a case in extremis, and suspected that it had been placed in the video as an example of worst practice, in order to give us a solid benchmark.

Imagine my horror when Mr Webster announced it as a "Level 2, bordering on level 1". I gasped in disbelief. "But I couldn't understand a word the candidate said," I complained. "What's the point of assessing ?" Mr Webster frowned severely, and cut me short. "The use of regional dialect should never, absolutely never," he emphasised, "be a barrier to high level passes at Standard grade.

"In Scotland, we possess a rich variety of linguistic heritage, and the demonstration of competent communicative - er - competencies," he stumbled slightly, "in any regional dialect whatsoever should be applauded, and certainly never condemned." He raised an eyebrow in my direction. "Do I make myself clear?" Simon Young, my principal teacher, aimed a particularly vituperative glance in my direction, and I took the hint.

"Perfectly, Mr Webster," I concurred. "Perfectly." I thought it wise not to mention the fact that I couldn't understand a word the teacher had said either...


The first year science curriculum has been thrown into confusion. Sandra Mathieson, a relatively recent recruit to the profession, has asked to be excused from teaching section 6 of the general science programme for personal and religious reasons.

Apparently, she is unable to bring herself to say the word "penis" in front of 30 12-year-olds. Personally, I have every sympathy with the woman (I've experienced similarly embarrassing moments myself when trying to teach DH Lawrence to the fifth year), but the education authority look likely to take a dim view. I wonder if such a breach of obligation is covered in their contract of employment? And - if so - how is it phrased?


A day off school for our spring weekend break has given me the chance to catch up on folio marking at last. It's been a torrid episode with regard to time management, and a distressing one with regard to academic standards.

To be perfectly honest, I can't believe the levels of inarticulacy that I've witnessed in the past few weeks, and if I read one more piece of transactional writing about "My Days on Work Experience", then I shall scream. Gail was equally horrified as she scanned some of the pieces herself.

"Hang on, Gail," I warned gently. "These are only supposed to be read by me."

"Oh, don't be such a wet blanket," she chided. "I'm just interested to see what - good grief!" she interrupted herself. "You've given this a Level 4."

"Not generous enough?" I held a hand to my mouth in concern.

"Not generous enough?" Gail repeated scornfully. "You must be joking, Morris. I'd be hard pushed to give this a Level 6."

"But, Gail, remember you're just a primary teacher, and not trained to..."

"Don't you 'primary teacher' me," she hissed in anger. "If one of my pupils handed in work like this I'd send it straight back. Listen to it!" she held the piece disdainfully ahead of her and started to read in laboured tones. "When I went on work experience it was good. Me and my friends walked to work. We swept some floors. We got some rolls for lunch. The talent was good. We got paid."

"It's a piece of transactional writing, Gail," I defended my grading. "The boy's conveyed meaning and described his activities in a relatively mature fashion."

"You're joking. What about the sentence construction? You call that mature?" "Maybe he was doing it for effect. I thought it better to give him the benefit of the doubt. The exam board's very keen that we do that in cases of uncertainty."

"There's no uncertainty here, Morris. This is a Level 6 piece if ever I've seen one, and that's how you should mark it!" I drew a sharp breath. "We can't give too many Level 6 awards, Gail. The exam board isn't keen on giving much below Level 4, to be honest. Standards would drop."

"But standards have dropped, if this is anything to go by," she insisted with exasperation. "Read it again, Morris," she pleaded, "and ask yourself if that's really a Level 4?" Reluctantly, I did as she asked. Even more reluctantly, I had to confess that she was right. Finishing the piece, I looked up at her, nodded slowly and suggested a compromise.

"Level 5? I might get away with that."

Gail sighed, then shrugged her shoulders as I amended the mark. As my first Level 5 in the folios, it was a momentous moment. I just hope the SQA doesn't choose it for sampling purposes.

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